In 2018/19, we worked with Cardiff University, Goldsmiths and the University of Southampton to support them to develop fair admissions policies and implement best practice procedures. This 12 month project was supported by the UPP FoundationWe continue to support other institutions to implement best practice procedures. 

Look at the approach that two of the universities we worked with now have:



UCAS announced in 2018 that they would no longer be asking all applicants to declare unspent criminal convictions. This meant universities needed to review their approach and decide if, when and how to collect this information.

For regulated courses – for example in medicine, education or social work – applicants will still be asked to declare criminal records on the UCAS application. Students who are admitted will need to apply for an enhanced DBS check, either before enrolment or at a later stage.

Following this change, Unlock wanted to work with universities to encourage a fair approach to students with convictions.



As part of the project, we developed a Fair Admissions Toolkit for higher education providers. 


Fair chance pledge

In October 2019 Unlock launched the fair chance pledge. Institutions signed up to the pledge are demonstrating their commitment to offering a fair chance to students with a criminal record.

Some of the institutions signed up to the pledge

Find out which institutions are signed up, and how to sign up, here.


What are other universities doing?

As well as the approaches of Southampton and Cardiff, here are some other approaches now being taken by universities:

University of Westminster – “We believe an unspent criminal conviction should not automatically prevent an individual from studying at the University of Westminster. Disclosing a criminal conviction is not a requirement of an application to study at the University and applicants will only ever be assessed on their academic suitability.” Read more

Bloomsbury Institute London – “We will not deny an applicant the opportunity to better their life through education on the grounds that the applicant has a criminal conviction. Therefore, in the interest of social justice and in order not to deter an applicant with a criminal conviction from making an application, we do not require the disclosure of criminal convictions.” Read more

University of Essex – Disclosing an unspent criminal conviction is not a standard requirement of an application for membership to the University. When considering the membership of a student to the University a criminal record will only be taken into account during the admissions process where the course is subject to a mandatory DBS check. There are other circumstances in which a criminal record may be relevant to membership of the University and these are set out in this policy.” Read more


Why does fair admissions matter?

There are over 11 million people in England and Wales with a conviction. Every year there are 1.2 million new convictions. Having a conviction can mean stigma and discrimination resulting in lifelong barriers to many aspects of life, including higher education.

People with convictions are largely drawn from the same groups who are under-represented at university BAME people, care leavers, people from low income households and those with neuro-disabilities are disproportionately criminalised. These same groups are often highlighted by widening participation initiatives – but does asking about criminal records create an extra barrier?

People with convictions are discouraged from applying. We know that tick boxes on application forms discourage people with criminal records from applying. It’s what research from the State University of New York  calls a “chilling effect” and it’s why many US universities “banned the box”.

Blanket questions about spent convictions don’t support safeguarding Safeguarding issues can be explored after offer and a transparent processes encourages transparency from applicants.

Universities have complex and differing policies and procedures. Good practice is often not followed. Some universities have a poor track record of treating individuals fairly.


Other things we’ve done

We developed principles of fair admissions and criminal records and supported UCAS to produce good practice resources for universities, including the short film below.


Latest news

If you’d like to keep up to date on this topic, sign up to our mailing list for universities.

22nd October 2019 – Ten UK universities lead the way by signing the ‘Fair Chance for Students with Convictions’ pledge

22nd October 2019 – Blog – How can people with criminal records access higher education?

7th May 2019 Bloomsbury Institute becomes first higher education institute to Ban the Box for staff

10th April 2019University admissions: what’s changed?

7th June 2018 – New paper published: University admissions and criminal records – Lessons learned and next steps

29th May 2018 – Ucas drops need for university applicants to declare convictions

You can read older news posts here and at the bottom of this page


Useful links

  1. Find out more about the ‘Fair Change for Students with Convictions’ pledge
  2. We have a policy page on university admissions which brings together a range of useful publications. 
  3. We have practical guidance for university admissions professionals
  4. We have details on the workshops we can run for institutions
  5. If you’d like to keep up to date with this area, sign up to our mailing list for universities.


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